Nawaz Sharif is no more prime minister of Pakistan but he is still a kingmaker. The Supreme Court has disqualified and disgraced him in the Panama case but he still enjoys the full confidence and support of the lawmakers of Pakistan Muslim League (N) and its allied parties in the National Assembly. His younger brother and Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif is not a member of the National Assembly but has been nominated by Nawaz as the next prime minister of Pakistan.
Shahbaz Sharif will contest the by-election from the same seat that his elder brother will vacate after disqualification. In the meantime Shahid Khaqan Abbasi will become interim prime minister. Abbasi is a senior politician who spent two years in jail during the Musharraf era and refused to turn approver against Nawaz Sharif.
So why did Nawaz Sharif decided to upgrade his younger brother? Many analysts have asked why the PML(N) leadership cannot trust Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to remain Prime Minister for ten more months until elections are held in 2018? Fact is, Shahbaz Sharif is the only person in the PML(N) who can not only save his party from disintegration but also give the opposition a tough time in the elections.
The challenge with the Army and the judiciary remains. Nawaz Sharif realizes, perhaps, that he has suffered in the past as a consequence of his confrontation with the army and that with elections due soon, a ceasefire is now called for. He also realizes that if he doesn’t make amends with the Army, then several feudal lords of south Punjab may leave the PML(N). Shahbaz Sharif’s soft image may be helpful in improving relations with both these powerful institutions.
Shahbaz Sharif enjoys the full confidence of his elder brother because he never betrayed him despite several offers made by the military establishment in the past to become prime minister by ditching his brother. Shahbaz started his political career in 1988 when he became member of the Punjab assembly for the first time. In 1992, he was a member of the National Assembly when President Ghulam Ishaq Khan developed differences with prime minister Nawaz Sharif, called Shahbaz and offered him the prime ministership. But Shahbaz declined. Again Benazir Bhutto’s government arrested Shahbaz Sharif in 1995 and tried to use him against his brother, but Shahbaz refused to succumb, even in jail. When Nawaz Sharif became prime minister for the second time in 1997, he nominated his brother as the chief minister of Punjab. His relations with the Army only improved at this time. He was the one who advised his elder brother to appoint General Pervez Musharraf as Army chief in 1998.
I still remember the time Musharraf invited me to dinner in January 1999 (nine months before the coup) and praised Shahbaz Sharif again and again. When I asked why he was so impressed by him, Musharraf replied, “Shahbaz is very intelligent and hardworking, he should move to Islamabad as Foreign Minister”.
Soon after I asked Shahbaz Sharif why the Army chief wanted him to become foreign minister? Shahbaz Sharif smiled modestly and said, maybe because according to some German diplomats he spoke German well and that one Arab prince had told him that he could also speak decent Arabic.
That was not the whole truth, of course. Shahbaz’s ability to work hard – he begins at 6 am, until late at night – and his strong control over the bureaucracy is impressive. He also became a bridge between the Army and his elder brother. It was Shahbaz Sharif and his friend Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan who tried to mediate between the Army and Nawaz Sharif after Kargil.
In fact, a few days after the Kargil ceasefire, Musharraf met Shahbaz Sharif and made him a clear offer. He told him that “my Corp Commanders want you to become Prime Minister of Paakistan”. But once again Shahbaz expressed his regrets and said, “I can’t betray my elder brother”.
When Nawaz Sharif decided to fire Musharraf he never took Shahbaz into confidence. He kept his decision secret. Both brothers were arrested by the Army after the coup on October 12, 1999. Once again Shahbaz was told that he could become prime minister, but once again he refused. When the two brothers met in a Karachi court the first time after the military coup, Shahbaz asked his elder brother “Why didn’t you tell me that you had decided to fire the Army chief?” The elder brother responded, “Because I was sure you would stop me from trying to do that.”
I mention all these historical facts to prove that Nawaz Sharif has always known that his brother is very close to the Army, but that he also knows that Shahbaz Sharif can never betray him.
Shahbaz’s closeness to the Army goes beyond Musharraf. When Raheel Sharif was Army chief in 2016 and Nawaz and he had problems, Shahbaz was again offered the prime minister’s job. What happened was that Gen. Raheel Sharif wanted a three-year extension in service as well as the rank of Field Marshal, but Nawaz Sharif was determined not to oblige him.
The scandal around the Panama papers had broken by then and Gen. Raheel Sharif was quietly encouraging Pakistan’s other actors to pressurize Nawaz to resign. Shahbaz turned down the offer of the top job, pointing out that he did not want history to repeat itself in the form of the Mughal princes Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb who fought each other until one was killed – so as to become the emperor of Hindustan.
Turned out that Gen. Raheel Sharif was not in a position to stage another coup against Nawaz Sharif, because corp commanders like Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa opposed the idea of the Army interfering in politics. Raheel quietly retired in November 2016 and General Bajwa was appointed the new Army chief by Nawaz Sharif because of his pro-democracy views. When the Supreme Court asked the Army to provide representatives for a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) in April 2017 to investigate Nawaz Sharif in the Panama scandal, Gen. Bajwa was disturbed. He didn’t want to become a part of it.
Gen. Bajwa consulted with some legal experts on how he could avoid this, but was told that under article 190 of the Constitution, he was bound to help the Supreme Court. Since he was not in a position to refuse, he gave two Brigadiers to the JIT. It was this JIT that found that a company in the UAE had issued a work permit to Nawaz Sharif with a salary of 10,000 dirhams per month—even though he had never received the money.
The rest, of course, is history. The court asked why this money had never been shown by Nawaz Sharif to the Election Commission, to which Nawaz’s lawyers pointed out that no money had ever been received. It is now that the Supreme Court, invoking Article 62 (1)(f), a hangover of the Zia ul-Haq era, declared that a person who is not ‘sadiq’ — sagacious, righteous, non-profligate – and ‘ameen’ — honest and truthful – cannot hold high office and should be disqualified. The court said that Nawaz Sharif had made a false declaration regarding his UAE income which proved that he was dishonest. The court also ordered that cases of corruption against Nawaz Sharif and his children be registered in a trial court as the Supreme Court is not a trial court.
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Some background regarding Article 62 (1)(F) here is in order. It was brought in by Gen Zia-ul Haq in 1985 and has remained on the statute books ever since. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government tried to remove it in 2010 through the 18th Constitutional amendment, but it was Nawaz Sharif who did not support the removal. Today he has become a victim of the same article; his supporters believe Nawaz Sharif has been felled by a judicial coup.
Interestingly, Nawaz’s staunch political rivals, like Imran Khan and Jahangir Tareen, are also facing the same kind of cases in the Supreme Court these days; if they also become a target of Article 62 (1)(F), all allegations of a judicial coup may prove false.
Meanwhile, prime minister-designate Shahbaz Sharif is being very careful. He is not criticising the court judgement. He told me recently, “We should not fight with state institutions, we need to work together”.
Shahbaz is determined to save his party. He is sure that Nawaz Sharif is still a popular leader and if the party survives and democracy works smoothly, Nawaz Sharif may or may not come back as prime minister, but the PML (N) will surely return as the majority party when elections are held next year. Who will be kingmaker at the time? There is only one name doing the rounds these days and that man’s name is Nawaz Sharif.
Hamid Mir works with Geo News where he hosts a popular talk show called ‘Capital Talk’. He tweets at @HamidMirPAK